This is an article written by Valentina Pazé, a professor in political philosophy at the University of Turin, and translated by Ruby Till for Associazione Iroko. It was originally published on 26-05-2020 in Volere La Luna. You can find the original Italian version here.

Prostitution: a job like any other?

The sex industry is among the sectors of the economy that have been hit hardest by the recent lockdown. Shendi Veli reminded us of this in her article on 12th March in Il Manifesto, talking about the fact that so-called sex workers had been abandoned during this pandemic. She presented the classic demands made by proponents of “decriminalisation”: from the recognition of prostitution as a legitimate form of work, to the legalisation of practices linked to prostitution, its aiding and abetting (favoreggiamento), currently illegal in Italy, and even at times cited in cases against those who rent houses to women in prostitution or live with them (according to an incorrect interpretation of the Merlin Law, criticised by Silvia Niccolai in Né sesso né lavoro. Politiche sulla prostituzione, Milano 2019, pp. 70-117).

In her contribution to 27esima ora on 22nd May, Luciana Tavernini showed us the other side of the coin: “Calling prostitution work is a way to convince people that everything, even going as far as access to internal parts of the body, can and should be sold, and at best we can fight to increase the price. This is an old trick that aims to hide exploitation by disguising it as work.” And so, rather than supporting the legalisation of those who profit from the prostitution of others, we should look to the section of the Merlin Law that provides for training and work placements for women who wish to change their lives. Who wish to get out of a ‘business’ that the overwhelming majority of them have ended up in out of necessity, and in some cases even force and duress (victims of trafficking), certainly not out of choice.

The contrast between these two positions seems insurmountable and also comes down to a choice of language: prostitution or sex work? ‘Paid rape’ (as in the title of the Italian translation of Rachel Moran’s autobiographical book Paid For) or “a job like any other”, for which we would then look to guraranteeing safe and legal conditions? This is one of the questions that divides opinion, even on the political left, within feminism and among organisations promoting human rights. It probably couldn’t be any other way, given the wide range of issues at stake: from our idea of the human body, of sexuality, of relations between the sexes, to views on freedom, rights and the relationship between the state and the market. 

So, 50 years on from the Workers’ Statute (a 1970 Italian law), reflecting on prostitution offers us the chance to ask ourselves questions on a much broader subject: how to protect dignity and freedom of work, and of workers, which the Italian Constitution asserts in a particularly formal and demanding manner. But, even before that, we must ask ourselves what we mean by ‘work’? Should we recognise any and every activity for which there is demand in the market for goods and services as work?

In Most Beautiful Island, a film by Ana Asensio inspired by the director’s real experiences, we see the protagonist, a migrant woman, make ends meet by doing a variety of unlikely ‘jobs’. One day, a friend makes an offer she can’t refuse: it involves turning up at an address, dressed in an evening gown and high heels, to participate in an evening of unspecified activities. The agreement is that nobody will touch her or force her to do anything against her will. If she closely follows the instructions she receives, they will pay her two thousand dollars. After a drawn-out wait in a basement with the others, she discovers that this ‘job’ consists of going along with a perverse game played by the guests at an exclusive party. Taking turns, the women have to go into a room, undress and lie down in a box with a deadly poisonous spider, in front of an audience in evening attire who will place bets on the probability of them being bitten. 

A “job like any other”, even when it makes your blood run cold and requires a readiness to take risks? If we decide to define work as the provision of any service for payment derived from the ‘free’ meeting between demand and supply, then we should undoubtedly reply in the affirmative. But, if this were the case, we should also consider many other possible services as acceptable, including the sale of votes or of vital organs. Or even giving up holidays from work, safety, and maternity leave, in exchange for financial compensation. All exchanges which, in our current system, are banned in the name of an indispensable core set of fundamental rights.

So what to say with regards to ‘sexual services’? Besides the many other considerations, what we can say for sure is that prostitution is objectively dangerous, and continuously exposes those involved to a higher likelihood of rape, murder, suicide, drug addiction, depression, and other mental health problems (according to data referenced in the book Né sesso né lavoro, p. 56). It’s a kind of activity, therefore, that we assume people would not choose to carry out unless they found themselves in a particularly vulnerable condition, economically speaking, but also often psychologically (as in the case of those who have suffered sexual abuse during childhood). In relation to such circumstances it’s hard to consider liberalisation as a form of ‘harm reduction’. Firstly, as demonstrated by countries that have taken this route, the majority of women don’t want to label themselves as prostitutes and so prefer to continue informally, considering this activity as something temporary. Secondly, because the ‘harm’ in this case is intrinsic to the activity itself: “Precisely because of its intrinsic characteristics of dominance, subordination and the absence of personal connection, commercial sex is greatly linked to violence, and statistically prostitutes are the biggest victims of sexual violence, including rape, and murder” (S. Bonino, Amori molesti. Natura e cultura nella violenza di coppia, Roma-Bari 2015, p. 92).

Let’s be clear. In a context in which the neo-liberal idea of the individual ‘as their own boss’ is dominant, it isn’t unimaginable for sexual freedom to be reinterpreted by some women as a marketable asset and for it to be considered a right to sell one’s own body. It is possible that there are women who “actively participate in their own objectification” (as observed by Ida Dominjanni referring to Berlusconi’s harem in Il trucco. Sessualità e biopolitica nella fine di Berlusconi, Roma 2014). Just as it is possible that there are workers who would be prepared to give up their health or their leave in order to earn more, even if they weren’t forced to do so. Essentially it boils down to the question of whether similar choices – in which the level of freedom is always difficult to gauge, given the asymmetrical power context they take place in – should be politically valued, favoured, encouraged, or not. Whether money, which Marx deemed the “great leveller”, should have the power to override every qualitative difference between that which is exchanged in a capitalist market. Or whether we should construct a barrier to the transformation of absolutely any good or service into a commodity.

A certain limit is put in place by our Constitution when, in article 41, it establishes that “economic initiative is free”, but that “it cannot be conducted in contrast with social utility or in a way which causes harm to safety, freedom or human dignity”. This is precisely the article that was cited by the Constitutional Court, in March 2019, as the basis upon which it declared the challenge to the Merlin Law unconstitutional. The ruling maintained not only that the offer or supply of sexual services for payment has nothing to do with the “freedom of sexual self-determination” guaranteed by article 2. It also stated that economic freedom is guaranteed by article 41 within defined limits, among which is respect for “a person’s dignity”, which is harmed by “an activity that degrades and demeans the individual, in that it reduces the most intimate sphere of the body to the level of a commodity available for consumption”.